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Minnesota Lawmakers Debate Shelf Life of License Plate Reader Data

Conflict between lawmakers lies between whether license plate reader “hits” on innocent people should be deleted immediately by police or kept for 90 days.

by Abby Simons, Star Tribune / January 26, 2015

(TNS) Concern among Minnesota lawmakers was nearly universal over license plate readers, a new crime-fighting technology in 2012 that had the potential to compromise the privacy of innocent citizens.

Now, as law enforcement agencies continue to use the automated readers, the Legislature is making its third attempt at regulating just how long cops can hang onto the data gleaned from the high-tech devices.

The devices, commonly known as LPRs, are small cameras mounted in squad cars or in fixed mounts that scan license plates and store information on where and when a vehicle was located when the scan was taken. Revelations about the devices in 2012 raised calls by privacy and civil liberties advocates — as well as ordinary citizens — on how police classify and retain the data.

Conflict between lawmakers lies between whether LPR “hits” on innocent people should be deleted immediately by police or kept for 90 days. Both sides were unable to reach a compromise last year, and no bill reached a final vote before the Legislature adjourned. The case was similar in 2013. Law enforcement agencies now are holding the data indefinitely until the Legislature reaches a decision, although that data is no longer classified as public.

A 90-day retention bill authored by Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee Thursday after two days of hearings. Latz told the committee, which he chairs, that 90 days struck a compromise between competing concerns over privacy and law enforcement’s capability to fight crime. Cops who testified during the hearings said LPR is a vital tool that can’t be used if its data is immediately tossed. Testifiers say the technology was used in part to catch Brian Fitch Sr., the man accused of gunning down Mendota Heights police officer Scott Patrick. Fitch is standing trial on first-degree murder charges.

Sen. Branden Petersen, R-Andover, disagrees with that approach and is urging lawmakers to support his zero-retention bill, citing the recommendations made by the bipartisan Legislative Data Practices Commission. He said that in an age of secretive law enforcement surveillance technology, combined with cases of snooping, there is no room for compromise.

“What we know about law enforcement is that they will operate to the fullest extent possible inside of the law, and the more data that they have at their disposal, they’ll use,” Petersen said. “If you couple LPR data with other mechanisms that are used to collect data en masse, you can, without ever establishing probable cause … paint vivid pictures of people’s everyday lives.”

Although Petersen’s bill didn’t clear the Judiciary Committee, it may have a chance at revival through its co-author, Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, who chairs the Transportation and Public Safety Committee.

In the meantime, expect a similar duel in the House, where Rep. Peggy Scott, R-Andover, is vouching for zero-retention and Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Vernon Center, wants 90 days.

©2015 the Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

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